“But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from.”
These words were written on a parchment for LeBron James by Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins when the two-time NBA champion decided he was coming back to Cleveland last July.
For James, the decision to return to the Cavaliers was about more than basketball. He was an Ohio kid. He grew up in Akron. The community was real to him. The community needed his help.
At that time, it seemed James was full of bravado. He’s a basketball player, not a community organizer. His presence wasn’t going to ultimately turn around an area of Ohio that had been struggling through some tough times.
“Man, this dude is full of himself,” some thought.
Less than a year later, and the entire city of Cleveland has been rejuvenated by this basketball player—a basketball player that is on the brink of scaling the highest mountain the NBA world could offer. Next Thursday, James will lead his Cavaliers, and in many ways, the city of Cleveland, to Northern California. He will be doing so as the leader of the Eastern Conference champs. He will be doing so about nine months after proclaiming the organization wasn’t ready to contend for a title.
“I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver,” James said in announcing his return to Cleveland last July. “We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that.”
And his patience was tested.
Halfway through the season, Cleveland stood at 21-20 and in utter turmoil. Questions were raised about first-year head coach David Blatt’s ability to succeed in the NBA. James had some not-so-private rifts with other star players on the Cavaliers. And it looked like the MVP’s previous proclamation was taking a realistic turn on the court.
The frustration eventually subsided. Cleveland’s front office brought in some reinforcements. And an understanding took place between James and other members of the team. As the regular season drew on, Cleveland became a team. No longer was it one man and a bunch of followers looking at LeBron to carry them on his back. Role players found niches, other star players filled a vacuum that seemed to be missing in the first half of the season, and the Cavaliers looked poised to make a deep run into the playoffs.
For James, this was the first step in a long-term rebuilding process. It was the idea of getting the team back into contention mode after so many miserable years following his departure from the organization four years prior. Never could he have imagined the near-end result would be an appearance in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
In “coming home,” James knew he had a responsibility that extended beyond the basketball court. And it’s a responsibility he has taken up willingly.
Back in August of 2014, James drew some criticism for setting up a rally in Akron to celebrate his charity work in the region. Much like “The Decision” from years before, many decided to call out the MVP for an egocentricity that exists within every major star in the sports world. And much like that “other” decision from for years before, people missed the point.
At that rally, Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic shared some kind words about the city’s native son:
“LeBron James is a better person than he is a basketball player.”
That might have very well been hyperbole more than anything else, but James has backed up this belief with the work he’s done off the court.
His allegiance to Ohio aside, it would have been easy for James to turn his back on the Cavaliers organization in pursuit of continued on-court dominance. He could have remained with the Heat, and probably would have found himself in the NBA Finals. He could have decided to join forces with Stephen Curry in Oakland, and formed the next great “super team.” Heck, James could have joined his best friend, Carmelo Anthony, in New York.
Instead, he decided to take on the task of not only rebuilding the Cavaliers organization, but helping the area that defined him as a child overcome the obstacles that have been far too prevalent in recent years.
From the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Children’s Defense Fund to Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation, James has been a godsent to countless organizations throughout the Cleveland area and the broader United States.
“LeBron James has the opportunity to maintain and expand a foundation dedicated to the children of Akron that can do great good for the community and avoid the missteps that have befallen so many other athletes’ charities, including Michael Jordan’s,” the site nonprofitquarterly.org wrote back in August of 2014. “Maybe he can be among the NBA career all-stars for establishing and running a charity the right way. Something tells us that with LeBron James, this is entirely possible.”
This is an opportunity for James to be recognized outside of the realm of basketball. A higher calling of sorts. It’s also an opportunity he’s taken with open arms.
Now that the Cavaliers are potentially on the brink of bringing a title back to Cleveland for the first time in over a half century, let’s not forget one of the primary reasons James took up this effort.
“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
That statement—concluding James’ essay announcing his return to Cleveland—is something fans of the Cavaliers can take to heart. It’s also something every one of us should support, especially at a time in the sports world when when it’s becoming increasingly difficult to support these million-dollar athletes.
So no matter who you are rooting for in the NBA Finals, make sure to pay your respects to a man that has done more than just bring hope back to the Cleveland sports scene.
Photo: USA Today Sports